Interrogative Pronouns (Question Words)

People sometimes find grammatical terms such as interrogative pronouns scary. If you count yourself among those who do, think of interrogative pronouns as “question words.” A question word is actually a pronoun because it is used in place of whatever noun would answer the question.

Notice that all question words have accent marks. When you learn a word with an accent mark, it is helpful to say it out loud and clap your hands on the syllable with the accent mark. This will not only remind you to stress that syllable, but it will also help you remember that the word has an accent mark.

  • ¿Quién? who
  • ¿Quiénes? who plural (used when you assume the answer is more than one person)
  • ¿Qué? what
  • ¿Cuál? which, what
  • ¿Cuáles? which ones, what (in front of a plural noun)
  • ¿Cómo? how
  • ¿Dónde? where
  • ¿Cuándo? when
  • ¿Cuánto? how much (used in front of a singular, masculine noun)
  • ¿Cuánta? how much (used in front of a singular, feminine noun)
  • ¿Cuántos? how many (used in front of a plural, masculine noun)
  • ¿Cuántas? how many (used in front of a plural, feminine noun)
  • ¿Por qué? why (because of what)
  • ¿Para qué? why (for what purpose)

Most of the question words have exact equivalents in Spanish and English. But there are a few issues you must understand to use the correct question word in context. There are three Spanish pronouns that can be translated by the English word “what.” Unfortunately, they are not interchangeable; there are, however, some simple rules to govern their usage.

“What” rule 1

Always use qué to mean “what” directly in front of any noun.

  • ¿Qué coche condujiste tú?
  • What car did you drive?
  • ¿Qué programas prefieren ellos ?
  • What programs do they prefer?

“What” rule 2

Qué is used in front of any form of the verb ser (“to be”) when asking for a definition or an explanation. That is, use qué when you are really asking, “What does it mean?” or “What is it?”

Cuál is used to mean “what” in front of any form of the verb ser when you are asking for a specific answer.

To understand the difference between “ qué es …” and “ cuál es …, ” consider the difference between these two answers to the question “What is your address?”

  • A. My address is the house number, street name, city, state, and ZIP code where I live.
  • B. My address is 322 4th St., Carrollton, OH 44615.

Answer A is obviously the response to a question asking for a definition or explanation of the word “address.” This is the type of answer that is elicited from the question:

  • ¿Qué es dirección?
  • What is address? (or, “Give me an explanation or definition of the word ‘address.’”)

Answer B is the type of response you would most likely give if you heard the question, “What is your address?” However, notice that the question word cuál must be used in front of the verb “to be” in Spanish if you hope to get a specific answer rather than a generalized definition.

  • ¿Cuál es tu dirección?
  • What is your address? (or, “Give me a specific place.”)

To better illustrate the difference, the following questions have completely different answers because of the different question words used.

  • Question 1. ¿Qué es la fecha? What is the date?
  • Answer 1. La fecha es el día, mes y año. The date is the day, month, and year.
  • Question 2. ¿Cuál es la fecha? What is the date?
  • Answer 2. La fecha es el 5 de junio del 2002. The date is June 5, 2002.

Question 1 uses the word qué in front of es. It is asking for an explanation or definition of the word fecha. Answer 1 explains what fecha means.

Question 2 uses the word cuál in front of es. It is asking for a specific answer, so Answer 2 provides a specific date.

“What” rule 3

Cómo is often used as a response when one fails to hear a comment and would like it repeated. In English, when someone says something you don't hear, you say, “What?” If this happens in Spanish, the one‐word response, ¿Cómo? is appropriate. That does not, however, mean that cómo can be used to mean “What?” in any other situation.